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Alyce doesn’t live here anymore

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Alyce fell in her basement a couple of months ago.

She banged the back of her head quite hard but came away without any major injuries.  There were some long-term effects though.  Alyce, who has been living alone on her farm since her husband died about fifteen years ago, had become nervous about staying on her own.  She’d had a stroke about a decade ago and manages her diet very carefully; and keeps moving, as much as she’s able, with her 85-year old muscles and bones.

Fortunately for Alyce, her son, Roman, moved back to the farm just before his dad died.  Roman and Marcy built a home a short distance away from Alyce’s, on the family farm.  Roman walks over at least twice a day to visit and check up on Alyce.  If it wasn’t for his decision to give up on life and work in the city, Alyce would have faced the tough decisions about her future much sooner – with her husband’s death.

The stairs become an issue

Alyce has been staying with Marcy and Roman since her fall.  When they originally designed the house they conceived of her staying with them at some future point, except they didn’t know much about the frailty of old bodies. They imagined she’d occupy the lovely large bedroom in the basement, with a fabulous view over the field and the lake beyond, where they installed a shower, toilet and sink, for her use.   They didn’t factor in that she would not be able to negotiate the steep stairs leading down to the basement.   So, the room which gave her access to that wonderful shower with a built-in seat was at the bottom of the stairs; and the other room, on the same level as the rest of the household – where all the action is – has a bathtub. By the time she moved in she was no longer able to get into and out of a bathtub, and so needed help.  Getting help with bathing was more logical, logistically, than having her live in the basement with those stairs.

The three of them have established a new way of being.  Marcy no longer sits on her favourite couch because Alyce sits and lies there for most of the day, but that’s ok because Marcy has other very comfortable chairs.   Roman has to put up with his mom’s anxiety around his daily activities: She is still inclined to tell him to chew his food more thoroughly, although Roman’s approaching 60 himself and so you’d think he’d know how to chew by now.

Alyce still does some of her meal preparation herself – she’s fond of boiled eggs, she makes toast, tea, and experiments with the muesli I produce when I’m there, and the concoctions I create from leftovers.   She’s unsteady on her feet and walks with a short-stroke slow shuffling motion, holding onto the kitchen table and the chair backs, door jambs and walls to maintain her balance.  She didn’t walk like this before the fall.   It is a new thing and I think it has more to do with her lack of trust in her capacity to avoid falling than that she can’t bend her knees and lift her feet.

Alyce doesn’t think she will ever move back into her own home.

On her good days she talks about perhaps going next door and spending the day.  Sometimes she does go, but only if Roman is around.  If anything does happen to her she doesn’t want to be lying there too long before he discovers her. But she won’t sleep there by herself – that’s too much to ask now.  She is a sweet woman with a charming sense of humour and an open mind about things that my far more worldly mother would pucker up her lips about.  She has a great awareness of the people around her – who they really are; not only the façade that they present in public.

She doesn’t want to be a burden to her daughter-in-law.

She knows that she’s becoming frailer and that she is increasingly going to require care.   In fact, in the past month she’s been receiving assistance from a home care worker to bathe and take care of herself:  When I visit I see these young women come into the house – the rules are that the dog is to be locked up for the duration of the visit, so I always have to grab Sugar and take her down to the basement where I’m working on a book (but that’s another story).

Often the care worker is not the same person.  They all seem to have the gift of the gab: they chat in an easy going way and will tell their life stories whether Alyce expresses an interest or not.  Sometimes they hang around after the ritual of bath, hair wash and getting dressed are all over, to chat some more.  Their slightly patronizing tone, when they speak to Alyce bothers me, but she doesn’t seem to notice. I don’t know if that visiting and chattering is part of the contract, but I do know that Alyce is bemused by that aspect of it: When the job’s done the job’s done; how does one get the helper to go?

One day there’s a quarrel.

Not with the daughter-in-law (Alyce is slightly nervous of her) but with the son.  For decades their views on religion have diverged. Her faith is all-important to Alyce.  In fact, the local priest regularly comes to do a little private communion with her – they’re more or less of an age and she always treats him with the greatest respect and humility. Roman likes and respects the priest – not as an agent of God or anything, but as a human being. He appreciates that the priest comes all the way out to the farm for Alyce.  As he becomes more and more cynical about the church they all belong to (except for his wife who grew up in a different church – also a Christian one, but not quite the same), Roman is always very cautious to avoid any controversy with the Father.  They talk about things like tractors and the weather.  The closest they get to religion is when the summer comes along and Roman has to go down to the cemetery to mow the lawn between the grave stones.  It’s a tradition he inherited from his late father and it is a labour of love – all of his family who have gone before him are buried there. He expects to be laid to rest there too, when his time comes.

But one day over lunch Alyce discovers Roman’s attitude to the church she belongs to. He uses strong language in speaking about certain key people, and refuses to retract.  She picks up the phone and calls her daughter in the city, who comes and takes Alyce away, no questions asked; no judgments made. That’s just how the daughter is.  A good person.  She and her brother talk about the practicalities but not about the quarrel.  The other brothers and their wives are informed.  The entire family, including grandchildren, accept that this is a natural, logical thing to do.  Two kids have to share a room in order to make space for their grandmother.  It happens. No whining; no controversy.  It’s just what families do.

Alyce returns to the farm a few summers after that, to visit; never again to stay for any length of time.  Nobody ever talks about the quarrel; nobody ever suggests that she should be moved to a ‘retirement home’.   She sits quietly, observing the family’s frenetic summertime activities.  Her eyesight isn’t so good anymore but I never see her with glasses on.  She occasionally mentions that she feels a bit ‘muddled in the head’.  It is as if she gradually disengages from life.

And then one day she was gone.

The funeral was well attended by all the tall good-looking members of her family spanning multiple generations.   “Alyce had a good life,” somebody says.

How much of this is true and factual?  I don’t really know.  These are my memories of Alyce.  I was not a significant person in her life; nor she in mine.  Our paths crossed, that’s all.  But it is how I recall her last years and I think that funeral celebrant’s observation is true.  Of course there were struggles, but all in all, she had a good life.

I tell this (names altered) story to remind me of the alternate reality to the distress and anger I’m sometimes called upon to mediate in families who can’t agree about ‘what to do about mom.’

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